Marxist criticism of the capitalist system says that it’s rife with contradictions. I want to spend a few minutes discussing what I see is one of the biggest, overarching contradictions at the very foundations of capitalism. In short: capitalism has forced us to live in a world in which humans, (who presumedly control society, economy, and business), are expendable chattel.
See, here’s the situation: Under capitalism you are an owner of capital (the richest 1 to 5% of the population), you are a laborer, or you are unemployed. Now, most people in the world are part of the labor class. (This includes those who own their own businesses. Unless you actually own production factories, airlines, a media conglomerate, a bank, you are not a capitalist. You are a laborer.) But here’s the switcheroony: labor costs is the most despised, inconvenient, troublesome cost to those who own and run businesses. All this piles of money handed out to the necessary evil of workers. Business owners (including the bourgeoisie who own small businesses), work and work (ironically) to minimize labor costs–cut benefits, lower pay, decrease the number of employees costing the company money.
Seeing the problem here? The grand majority of human beings in the world are the enemy of business (so long as they’re labor and not consumers). Business grudgingly pays labor, as little as it can get away with, in order to give the masses the means to buy the commodities and services capitalism produces at obscene rates and worthlessness. The majority of the world’s population is the enemy of the very socio-economic base that they live under and serve.
Now, I’m not one to believe the whole “humans rule the earth by divine providence” or we’re masters of the animal kingdom or any of that hogwash. But let’s be honest: we humans, like it or not, regardless of any imbued esoteric meaning, are kind of in a position of power on this planet. We have species-wide sovereignty, agency, sentience, and capability. When you think about it, shouldn’t we be living under a socio-economic system where we’re in actual control? Where humans have a privileged place in our own societies to determine our own value and not be considered both an expendable commodity and a liability by the socio-economic base?! I mean, shouldn’t that simply be obvious?
In this world of commerce where labor (i.e.: most everyone) is an annoying liability to management and owners and shareholders–business as normal, in general–unions try to fight for the basic right of people to have an exchange value for their labor closer to the output value their labor produces.
Ah! says the average American. Labor unions?! They’re as bad as soviet commies. Well, here’s where things get fun….
Let’s grant for a moment that when you start scouring the land far and wide for unions, there are some that are as corrupt as the corporations they are fighting for workers’ rights against. (Co-opting and assimilation of labor-friendly things is a tool of capitalism to undermine its effort, but that’ll be addressed later.) But let’s talk generalities and averages here. What is the goal of the union?
To bilk workers of union dues, Joe American says.
No no no, that’s one of those rare instances. Back to general intent here. Unions fight to increase worker wages, benefits, leave time, insurance, etc. Now, fellow worker of the world, how in the world is that a bad thing?
Because they’re greedy and they ask for too much pay!
Uh huh. And what exactly is too much pay? Is it compared to what you make? Is it sour grapes and jealousy? Is it that you think the average steel worker, mine worker, nurse, actor, teacher, auto assembler, any of the millions of jobs served by unions, are buying multiple houses and several cars and taking trips at a whim’s notice to Europe on their ill-gotten union negotiated wages? Oh, no, sorry–I got workers confused with the owners of capital.
If things worked the way they should, the 80%+ of the world’s population who labor and toil and work for a living should not have to negotiate for an extra $5 and hour against the 1 to 5% of the population who own literally 90% of the world’s wealth.
This is an important point worth repeating: The super-majority of workers in the world, including you and everyone you likely know, should not have to also toil and fight to extract a few bucks more pay out of the 5% who own 90% of the world’s wealth.
Ah, says Joe, but when the union (or even non-union workers) fight for higher wages (which are always lower than the value of what their labor produces, by the way), that means products and services have to cost the consumer more! Unions and even wages themselves harm society!
Really? Here’s the really crazy thing about capitalism: When labor costs are forced to increase (e.g.: wage increases), the very same companies who raises the prices of their products and services tend to pay their CEOs and presidents and owners multi-million dollar compensation packages. Labor fights tooth-and-nail for more porridge, the consumer is forced to pay more for consumption, but the wealth that flows up the pyramid stays untouched and protected, allowing the rich to get richer.
And, here’s the joke of it all: We, the massive majority who are the labor class, are convinced to protect that flow of wealth up the pyramid, that it’s the right and natural way of things. We’re convinced to hate unions, to see other laborers as greedy, and put the capitalists on pedestals like royalty–behavior that harms ourselves and benefits those with the power and wealth! The labor class produces the goods, provides the services, has the expertise and skills, and the overwhelming numbers; the top 1 to 5% only have the wealth. But they control the masses and convince them, us, to work and vote and live against our own best interests in order to protect theirs.
Think about this: You’re in a room of a hundred people. You want to rule and control the other other 99. Do you do it by force? Yeah, see how far that gets ya. Or do you get the other 99 to do what you want by convincing them that what you want is the natural, proper way of things–even if it’s against their own interests? That’s what the capitalists have done with our entire cultural logic: convinced us greed is good, consumption is good, buy more stuff; that unions are greedy (uh oh! another contradiction!) and people should be thankful for the few bucks an hour their labor gets them and that to demand more compensation for their life-absorbing labor only harms everyone; and to ignore the fact that the only people who aren’t harmed by any of this are those to who all profits flow upward toward; and to accept as the natural and proper Way of Things that a tiny few (who are good at trading companies among each other), continue to get obscenely wealthy off the struggling labor of the masses who fight to keep their own wages and benefits as low as possible to make more profit for others.
Once more for effect: and to accept as the natural and proper Way of Things that a tiny few (who are good at trading companies among each other), continue to get obscenely wealthy off the struggling labor of the masses who fight to keep their own wages and benefits as low as possible to make more profit for others.
It’s an entirely upside down world we’re living in. When and how will it change?
(Facebook? Essay originally published: http://www.celticbear.com/weblog/2010/02/17/laboring-upside-down)